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Reading the Mind of God

Roger Caldwell asks why we are all here.

The most famous – or notorious – page of A Brief History of Time is that in which, speaking of an imminent ‘theory of everything’, Stephen Hawking claims that with its arrival we could come to know “the mind of God”. For Hawking, an agnostic, the phrase is little more than a metaphor. What he is really saying is that with the physicists’ ‘theory of everything’ the reason for the existence of the universe would be completely known, and in that case there would be no need for talk of God or theology at all. The cosmological God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, would have been dissolved in the physicists’ equations.

We have yet to achieve this ‘theory of everything’. But even were it to hand, could it deliver the goods as promised? For there are two types of fundamental question here. We can ask how has the universe, and mankind, come into being. We can also ask why. It is the second, the teleological question, which science is held unable to answer. No matter that we learn to better understand the ‘how’ of mankind and the universe in terms of biology and physics, the answers to the ‘why’ question may remain the same as before. For a Christian, the answers are to be framed in terms of God’s purposes for man. The growth of science is an irrelevance in respect to this. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ are logically distinct.

It doesn’t take much thought, however, to find this response disingenuous. After all, a better understanding of the fundamental ‘how’ questions may well result in a reassessment of the way we interpret God’s purposes. It might even have the effect that we become reluctant even to talk of God’s purposes, indeed, that we cease to think it worth asking the ‘why’ questions at all. For if there are no gaps left for God to play a cosmological role, all such talk becomes redundant. The growth of science may not answer theological (and philosophical) questions directly, but it may well make certain of them no longer worth addressing.

For example, it is easy to forget how foreign the pre-Darwinian world is to us now. In the scientific writings of Immanuel Kant we see a great thinker struggling with questions which would no longer occur to us. To the eighteenth-century mind, there seemed everywhere in the world to be evidence of God’s special provisions. God had provided the earth with an atmosphere with the intention of allowing men and animals to breathe. He had created men with complicated organs whose purposes were evident, but whose workings were obscure. Kant quite understandably wanted to save God the trouble of making special provisions for each plant and animal, and argued for the possibility of an overriding system of physical law that could result in the world of living organisms that we know, without the need of innumerable particular divine interventions.

Nevertheless he was unable to envisage how the self-regenerating powers of a living organism could be explained by purely mechanical laws. Science, for Kant, seeks mechanical connections (the ‘how’), but living organisms must be treated as purposively interrelated (the ‘why’). This ‘purpose’ he sees as lying outside scientific explanation proper. It is apparent that he invokes teleology here, in part at least, because he can’t see how living organisms could have been produced by the random workings of nature. With Darwin, of course, all this goes out the window. Blind nature, through the combination of random mutation and natural selection, provides precisely that appearance of purpose in the world which had previously made the notion of an intelligent creator so attractive – indeed, except for the likes of Hume, almost a necessity.

There is no doubt, said Bishop Butler, that the eye was intended for us to see with. Certainly, eyes are used for seeing. That is, in a sense, their purpose. But they weren’t designed by an intelligent creator, who would undoubtedly have come up with something better. Indeed, the very fallibility of the human eye, as of the human body in general, gives evidence of a botched job – precisely of the sort that the blind mechanical operations postulated by Darwin would lead us (with hindsight) to expect. Clearly, Kant would not have raised the philosophical issues regarding teleology that he did had Darwinian science been available to him. Philosophers, like theologians, are, however, reluctant to admit that science sometimes makes their questions redundant. The best study to date on Kant’s teleology – that by J.D. McFarland – manages the remarkable feat of not mentioning Darwin once.

However, Kant isn’t quite so easily disposed of. For he distinguishes between the natural purpose (or Naturzweck) of a particular organism – the purpose of the eye is to see – and the purpose of nature itself (Zweck der Natur). That is, it is still possible to ask why there are men or animals at all, and what part they play in the arrangements of nature. If we then deny that nature has an overriding purpose, saying with Darwin that it operates blindly, it is still possible to put the question back to an even more basic level: Why is there a universe at all? The pertinence of this question is that it is only in recent years that we have begun to have plausible scientific answers to the question of how the universe could have come into being.

In this context what has been called the Anthropic Principle has been much invoked. Formulations vary, but all spring from the perception that the laws of physics are so finely adjusted as to have resulted in a very improbable universe. This unlikely cosmos, in which stars and planets were allowed to form, was one in which mankind, chemically composed of the matter from dead stars, could eventually make his appearance. Of all possible universes, the universe which actually came about was one of those very few which could have resulted in intelligent lifeforms. This is certainly a remarkable fact, but what is its significance in relation to our fundamental ‘why’ questions?

There is, first of all, the possibility that there are, or have been, other universes, without man, without organic life at all. If so, there could be no one to tell us about them. Further, even in our own universe, it doesn’t appear that the emergence of homo sapiens was in any way inevitable. Re-run the scenario again, and we might never have climbed out of the primordial soup. Even if we had got as far as the emergence of the mammals, there is nothing that requires mankind as one of their number. For the biologist, we are as much sports of evolution as the duck-billed platypus.

Fair enough. But the fact is that man has emerged. We may know ‘how’ he has done so, but the question ‘why’ remains open. Or at least in a sense it does, but in the same sense that it may just as well be closed. For it is hard to see, by virtue of what we know now of evolution, what could possibly constitute an answer, or why an answer is required at all. Certainly, an answer in the terms of traditional Christian theology becomes implausible. For it could hardly be thought that God had made special provision for mankind if He has created a universe in which it was most improbable that mankind would ever appear.

There is, in fact, nothing much new about the Anthropic Principle. This talk of ‘possible worlds’ brings us back to Leibniz, whose ideas inspired Kant’s notion of Zweck der Natur. Leibniz believed in a pre-determined harmony; God had set the universe running in such a way that everything would be for the best in the long run. He used this idea to argue that despite all the evil we see in the world, God really is all-knowing and all-caring. Leibniz, in trying to understand the world by reference to God’s purposes, was going against his immediate forebears. Descartes had denied that purposes had any part in science. Spinoza, more daringly, denied that there were any such purposes in nature at all; for him they were nothing but human fictions. Leibniz, however, happy in his ability to read God’s mind, required that his universe, for which “knowledge of good was a prime requisite”, must be that which is “simplest in its hypotheses and richest in its phenomena.” It was also determined in advance. Once set going, its end was pre-ordained by its starting conditions.

We now know that this last requirement of Leibniz’s God is false. As Hawking says, “the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics implies that certain pairs of quantities, such as the position and velocity of a particle, cannot both be predicted with complete accuracy.” At the heart of the universe is an essential indeterminacy. Its future isn’t settled in advance. Indeed, even in Leibniz’s own terms, there is something rather pointless about this pre-determined universe. If it is all known in advance, what is the point of its being played through time? What need is there for history? The age of the universe, for Leibniz a matter of thousands of years, for us a matter of billions, is pertinent too for those who would attempt to invoke the Anthropic Principle for theological purposes. For why would God require a plan that operated on such a vast time-scale, a universe which for all but a few million of its fifteen billion years or so had no intelligent lifeform to observe it? The only answer that makes much sense is that God has to stick to the laws of physics. But who then made the laws of physics?

The last is not entirely a frivolous question. For the scientists are now presenting us with a universe whose origin lies in the random fluctuations of a vacuum-field. This is virtually a return to St. Augustine’s view that the world was created from nothing – except that God is no longer needed to achieve the miracle. The laws of physics alone are sufficient. If this is a plausible scientific account of the origin of our universe, does it make sense any more to ask our last ‘why’ question? If the scientists can now tell us ‘how’ the universe came into being, and if their story requires no intelligent Creator, the assumption of an intrinsic purpose to the universe surely becomes superfluous. The question “Why is there a universe at all?” has not been answered, but perhaps it is time to stop asking it.

It looks as if any cosmological part for God is thereby lost. We have seen that God’s role of having made mankind in his image becomes more difficult to sustain following Darwin. God’s role as creator of the universe too has now disappeared. He may have other roles to play, but not that of the designer of the world. We have read God’s mind, it seems, and there is nothing there. Is that the end of the story? Not quite.

For it is possible to reformulate our question into one more fundamental still. In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger raised, but did not answer, the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” If this question is meaningful – and if we can ask the ‘why’ of the universe, there would seem no reason why we can’t ask the ‘why’ of existence in general – there would still seem something that merits an answer. For the new model of creation is, strictly, not quite a universe out of nothing. Our universe is antedated by the laws of physics which produce it, and the laws of physics are not exactly nothing. It is still permissible to ask, that is: Why are there laws of physics at all?

In this form it is an explicitly metascientific question, one above and beyond the reach of scientific enquiry. But not only is it a question that science cannot answer, it is a question that no further development of science could possibly have any bearing on. The theory of everything could be given an answer, but this question would still remain. Nor, for that matter, is there any philosophical or theological tradition from which an answer to it readily emerges. It may well be that any universe requires a set of physical laws, but we are not asking the question in the context of a universe. We are not now asking why mankind exists, or why a universe exists – for we have seen these questions pushed aside by science. We are asking why there are physical laws, why indeed there is anything at all that could have resulted in a universe.

Pushed back to this most fundamental formulation of all, our ‘why’ question is not only immune to scientific interference, it seems immune to any kind of rational discourse at all. It is hard to see what could even count as a plausible answer. No doubt it is for this very reason that it is rarely asked, or dismissed as meaningless. Indeed, it is tempting to dismiss as meaningless questions which we seem to have no hope of answering. But the lack of a ready answer is insufficient reason for denying that they are questions at all. Until we do have an answer the claim to have read God’s mind is premature. At present, when asked “Why is there anything at all?”, the best tactic available to us, intellectually unsatisfying as it is, is the bald response, Why not?

© R. Caldwell 1995

Background Reading

John D. Barrow, Theories of Everything (Vintage 1992)
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam 1988)
Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics translated by R. Mannheim (Yale University Press 1959)
Immanuel Kant, Philosophy of Material Nature translated by James W. Ellington (Hackett 1985)
Immanuel Kant, The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God translated by Gordon Treash (Bison Books 1994)
J.D. McFarland, Kant’s Concept of Teleology (University of Edinburgh Press 1970)
James Rachels, Created From Animals – The Moral Implications of Darwinism (OUP 1991)
R.S. Woolhouse, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz – The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth-Century Metaphysics (Routledge 1993).

Roger Caldwell writes essays, poetry and book reviews and has published in the Independent, the Literary Review, the New Statesman and the London Magazine to name but a few.


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